Hit TV Series Spawns 1980s Car Nostalgia
Nostalgia for the early 1980s is sweeping the UK right now on the back of a cult TV series which has one particularly iconic car at its heart – the original Audi Quattro.
Set in 1981, BBC TV’s Ashes to Ashes is a police show named after the contemporary David Bowie song, and is a part-homage, part-parody.
Its strange plot line surrounds a female detective from the present day who is hovering between life and death after being shot. Possibly as a result of falling into a coma she is somehow is transported back to London in 1981 as part of a team of crime-fighting cops in an era when no-one had thought of political correctness.
Central to the action is a bright red Audi Quattro which tears around each week at improbably high speeds in clouds of tyre smoke.
Although (for reasons of cost when new) it would have been an unlikely choice of transport for a real detective chief inspector in London in 1981, the car is undoubtedly an inspired choice. It has such a presence, not least as a result of the awe it seems to create among the cast. DCI Gene Hunt (played by Philip Glenister) bellows “Fire up the Quattro!” and viewers are immediately aware this is no ordinary car.
Purists could well quibble that the car used in the series isn’t actually a 1981 model. Its later headlamps and bumpers give away the fact that it really dates from 1984, but that hardly seems to matter in this enjoyable romp with an occasional dark twist.
Think US series Hill Street Blues crossed with British drama The Professionals imposed upon a gritty and discontented London the year Prince Charles married Lady Diana, and that just about sums up the programme.
The period appeal doesn’t just extend to cars – there are big perms, white leather jackets and shoulder pads aplenty, as well as then-new technology such as video players and clunky home computers add to a beguiling mixture.
Nowadays big, expensive German cars seem to be everywhere and Audi is up there with the best of them, so it’s easy to forget that in the 1970s the company was a relatively obscure maker of slightly fancier VWs which was desperate to break into the big league.
The Quattro, with its 200bhp turbocharged engine, sophisticated permanent four-wheel-drive system and square hewn-from-solid coupé body, was undoubtedly a seminal car in this respect and heralded Audi’s ascent to greatness during the 1980s.
Ashes to Ashes is actually a second-season re-title of an earlier series, Life on Mars (another David Bowie reference), which was set in the northern city of Manchester in the early 1970s. In that fist instalment most of the same police team were in place, but on that occasion the car which took centre stage was a brown metallic 1973 Ford Cortina GXL.
The Cortina was the archetypal mid-size aspirational British saloon which sold in its hundreds of thousands and in its Mark 3 incarnation offered then-fashionable “coke bottle” styling aping larger American sedans. The Life on Mars Cortina screeched and slid its way through rubbish-strewn back streets each week in homage to scenes from that classic 70s series Starsky and Hutch.
For classic car fans TV exposure is both a blessing and a curse. By awakening the interest of younger people in old iron from the 1970s and 1980s they throw some of these ageing vehicles a lifeline and encourage their preservation. At the same time, fashion is notoriously fickle and today’s cult hit can easily be forgotten tomorrow.
The Cortina, for all its period styling charms, was just an ordinary family car of no great merit, and any rise in value from TV fame may be short lived. The Quattro is a different matter and truly deserves a place in the automotive hall of fame.
Meanwhile, a US version of Life on Mars – made by David E. Kelley – is said to be in the pipeline sometime soon.
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